Strength training and heart health

I have a family history of heart disease. I’m currently 42, and as I’m getting older, I’m worried that I’ll end up with heart problems. Right now I don’t have any problems with my heart or blood pressure. My doctor recommended doing aerobic exercise to stay healthy, but I really don’t like cardio. Will lifting weights have a significant impact on my cardiovascular health?

Short answer: Strength training is probably not going to boost your heart health the way you’re hoping. However there is still benefit! Here’s why:

Your body adapts to the demands that you place on it. These demands can take the form of learning a new skill, increasing daily physical activity, or lifting heavy things. In particular, your muscles will get stronger relatively quickly when you start to make them work.

As well as being an very important organ, your heart is a muscle. And just like any other muscle, it will respond to increased stress (i.e. exercise) by getting stronger. In practical terms, this means it becomes more efficient at pumping blood, since it can move more blood with each heartbeat. This is useful since your body needs a minimum amount of blood to circulate every minute in order to keep living; More blood moving per beat means that your heart rate (the number of beats per minute) can decrease without problems.

Overall, there isn’t much research to suggest that strength training creates enough stress to improve heart health. Aerobic exercise – aka “cardio” – remains your gold medal choice for this. Don’t think that time with weights isn’t valuable for your heart though.

Strength training still benefits

There are still some benefits for heart health. They just are a little more indirect.

  • The most important molecule in your blood is oxygen. We can live with low levels of everything else, but without oxygen, we’re toast. Any time we move our body, our oxygen needs increase, as it gets used more quickly by your muscles. The more strenuous the movement, the more oxygen you’ll use and need. Strength training will make your muscles stronger (obviously!), and stronger muscles will be less stressed by daily activities. With less physical stress comes lower oxygen demands in everyday life, so your heart can stay in low-stress mode too.
  • Research has suggested that the actual structure of your heart will change with strength training. Specifically, the walls will become thicker (but not dangerously so), which allows a stronger “pump” action. Stronger pump means more blood is pumped per beat, and your heart can do less work (fewer beats) to move the same amount of blood through your body. We do know from the research that with regular and long term strength training, your heart rate will decrease, which is an easily observable effect of this.
  • Some research has also shown that blood pressure is reduced with regular strength training. It’s important to know that if you already have high blood pressure, you’ll need to modify your strength training program a little to make sure you don’t increase it during a session. Short term increases in blood pressure are common when lifting heavy things.
  • It appears that with regular strength training, the heart muscle itself will adapt to use less oxygen, again decreasing your overall demand.

The last word on strength training for heart health

Ultimately strength training doesn’t appear to provide enough stress to create significant positive changes in heart health. You really do need the ongoing challenge of sustained aerobic exercise, namely, a sustained elevated heart rate. This is what improves the majority of the factors that keep the heart healthy in the long run. You aren’t sentenced to running, cycling, or anything other form of cardio though. There are lots of other ways to use strength training exercises to keep your heart healthy, or you could look at some non-traditional types of cardio exercise. You might find it just as enjoyable.

What do you think?